“UnREAL,” Lifetime’s dark drama behind the scenes of a “Bachelor”-esque reality TV show, has always held one main attraction for me: its starring character, producer Rachel Goldberg.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Quinn King, too. She’s a fearsome femme who runs “Everlasting,” the aforementioned “Bachelor” parallel, with an iron gaze and a grip as tight as her dresses. But Quinn, for all her biting one-liners and dictatorial rule, is a more familiar creature than Rachel. The manipulative genius who serves as Quinn’s protégé and “UnREAL’s” molten core, Rachel’s of a breed both common and rare. She’s an antihero as potent as Tony Soprano or Ray Donovan — but she’s one of the only female antiheroes to make her mark on television.
At least, she was. Until Monday’s fiasco of an episode, “Fugitive.”
The eighth episode in “UnREAL’s” uneven second season, “Fugitive” found Rachel under self-imposed lockdown, willingly medicated by her mother, a shifty psychiatrist whom she hates, after accidentally orchestrating the police shooting of a black man. Rachel’s character, up until this episode, has remained consistent: she believes in television’s power to make a positive difference in the real world, but her own selfish, duplicitous, morally compromised nature binds her to “Everlasting,” a show revolting and exploitative.
Sometimes, Rachel tries to turn “Everlasting” into her culture-changing platform, like by casting the show’s first black suitor, Darius, this season. But oil and water don’t mix: Rachel’s attempt at changing society explodes with the bang of a police officer’s gun. She takes and deserves blame for the bullet that hit Darius’ cousin Romeo. After he and Darius, rightly annoyed at “Everlasting’s” producers, took a car for a joyride with two white female contestants, Rachel called the cops, hoping to broadcast police bias against black men for the masses. She was too right about the bias she’d see.
After her plan falls apart, with Romeo and Darius in the hospital, Rachel lets her mother — who has claimed Rachel suffers from an assortment of mental ailments throughout the series — medicate her beyond coherence. I won’t rehash the rest of the episode for you; you can look up a review for that. But if you’re wondering why Rachel’s psychiatrist mom is doing something as unethical fas treating her own daughter, “UnREAL” answers your quandary with one of the worst twists ever: when Rachel was 12, one of her mother’s patients raped her, and her mother has treated and medicated her ever since then to protect her psychiatry practice.
And with that revelation, Rachel the Antihero died.
On the surface, revealing that one of Dr. Goldberg’s patients raped Rachel adds some value to the show. It explains why Rachel has always reviled her mother, and why Dr. Goldberg has always vaguely resembled a villain from a horror movie. Within that slim storyline, the twist works — it even helps.
But making Rachel a rape victim destroys much more than it explains “UnREAL’s” protagonist. The beauty of antiheroes is in their complication: they are both good and bad, likable and repulsive, smart and stupid, moral and corrupt. They contain contradictions, and in doing so, they resemble real people more than almost any other character type. Antiheroes work as plausible characters precisely because we see ourselves in them: we, too, consider ourselves somewhat inscrutable, a mix of qualities both desirable and unwanted.
That’s why there are so few female antiheroes. In general, women have been seen as vessels and stock characters rather than as full humans, in TV and real life. We’re chastised if we stray from gender norms; we aren’t allowed the same depth and complication.
Rachel was the rare exception — a product of “UnREAL’s” equally rare female showrunners, Sarah Gertrude Shapiro and Marti Noxon. Sadly, Shapiro and Noxon fell victim to the same tired trope so many men have employed. By making Rachel a rape victim, long-suffering in silence, they made all of her miscalculations, ambiguities and deficiencies a result of her rape. She can’t be blamed for her mistakes: they stem from suppressed childhood trauma. She can’t be reviled: now, we’ll always have her victimhood in our heads.
The Rachel we knew is gone, replaced by a character much more familiar, much less interesting and no longer important in the modern TV landscape. Male violence made her multifaceted: Rachel, like nearly every other woman in TV and film, couldn’t just be a person because she’s a person. She had to be Created by her nameless rapist. Yet again, a man became God.
I’m going to keep watching “UnREAL,” at least for the rest of this season. Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer continue to give Emmy-worthy performances as Rachel and Quinn. Their characters’ relationship continues to intrigue me. Maybe Shapiro and Noxon will even come up with an ingenious way to make their rape twist worthwhile.
But I doubt it. And until that miracle happens, I’ll mourn the death of Rachel Goldberg: a woman of limitless television promise, taken from viewers too soon.